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Drones Take Off in the Oil Field, but How High Will They Fly?

Unmanned aerial vehicles are creeping up on ubiquity in the oil and gas industry, but their potential still firmly outweighs the actuality. A panel at the 2019 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition took a close look at the benefits of drones and at the tethers still holding back their use.

“We use, across Shell, unmanned surveillance systems daily, both in our offshore and our onshore assets,” said Rebecca Shulz, Permian West development manager at Shell. One of the greatest benefits of this broad adoption of drones, Shulz said, was the increase in safety for the company’s workers. “Road safety is our No. 1 risk,” she said. “It’s one of the primary reasons that we wanted to go into a surveillance program that helps to rely on unmanned activities.”

The great distances in the Permian mean a lot of “windshield time” for workers driving to inspections. These drones allow for inspections of distant facilities without exposing workers to the perils of driving vast distances. Shulz showed the following video to underscore Shell’s drone use:

These unmanned inspections have the added benefit of minimizing the effect on the environment. Hisham Saadawi is SPE’s technical director for production and facilities and moderated the panel. “The traditional ways of doing it involve boots on the ground,” he said, “having large crews working in often remote locations, hostile environments, or perhaps environmentally sensitive environments. Drones offer the opportunities to do work with minimal impact on the environment.”

The benefits of limited environmental impact and removing workers from danger can only be realized, however, if the use of drones increases unfettered. This has not been the case. Emery Brusset, the managing director for Social Terrain, pointed to two anchors holding down the use of drones: scalability and potential societal backlash.

“Drones are going to increase the flow of data we get, but drones should not be what we focus on,” Brusset said. “It’s not so much about the object. It’s not so much about the data. It’s going to be more and more about dealing with these two challenges: scalability and, potentially, a backlash from society.”

The use of drones in the Permian is one thing, Brusset said, but use elsewhere is another. The Permian is sparsely populated, and the buzzing drones go largely unnoticed by the public. As Brusset pointed out, however, “We will be applying this technology in areas which are much more densely populated and can be very troubled.”

Callum Holland, customer success manager at Soarizon, put a finer point on the problem. “The term ‘drone’ carries a negative connotation, more so publicly but also within industry. … So, we’ve got some legwork, some homework, to do on how do we flip the psyche of these things whizzing around in the air, snooping on us, collecting data that we don’t know what they’re doing with.”

The ability of drones to collect not just data but accessible data may be their savior from public backlash. They have the ability to collect data that can be easily digestible by the public. “The big challenge in communicating social impact knowledge is to make it understandable,” Brusset said, “and drones offer a way of doing that simply because they’re creating visualizations. What we tend to see in social impact assessment now is very generic maps, which are difficult for local populations and local stakeholders to understand and to relate to.”

What is done with the data that drones collect, the analytics behind it, has a great effect. “Social impact assessment is still one step removed, so what this can do is create new forms of visualization, new forms of representation that people can understand and relate to,” Brusset said.

Brusset and Holland both emphasized that analytics should be the focus of efforts to boost value, both monetary and societal, from drones. “Analytics is going to be the heart of it,” Brusset said. “There has to be a social engagement team. … You can imagine this team, for example, allowing populations to control where the drones fly, what they check, and how the information is stored and analyzed. What we’re talking about here really is democratizing information. It is about spreading the use of the drones, making it more a part of everyday life.”

Holland continued by suggesting that perhaps the industry is focusing on the wrong aspect of the technology. “We’ve really got to embrace the technology, and the trouble is, at the moment, we’ve been embracing the actual drones because that’s the sexy stuff,” he said. “That’s the stuff you can see, that you can play with, that you can see flying. What we’ve really missed out on is the back end. How do we effectively manage those drone operations at scale? We’ve really got to begin onboarding that into our innovation programs.”

That scalability is another weight holding drones back. “We have fantastic programs that have proven that they can capture the data in more-effective, cost-efficient ways,” Holland said, “but the ROI [return on investment], the scale doesn’t tip until you have 100, 200, 300, 400 operations. At the moment, we don’t have a tool in place that lets drone operators manage large-scale drone operations. So that’s another key blocker today.”

The scalability problem does not seem to be insurmountable, but the money question remains. “Most industries, within their innovation departments, have some form of drone program. That funding is earmarked for this program, and it doesn’t matter too much if you get a negative ROI,” Holland said. “But, … how are we actually going to save companies some money using drones? What’s the business value of investing the time and effort—and it will be an awful lot of time and effort—to really push drones into the mainstream?”

The answer appears obvious: reduced cost. “At the moment, it is probably costing industries more to run a drone program than they’re getting back on their ROI,” Holland said. “And that’s a problem of scale. But, if we solve that scalability problem, you will reduce costs.”

Regulations are another hurdle that needs to be cleared before drone usage can reach its potential. Although these unmanned craft are becoming increasingly popular, the regulations guiding them are still in their infancy. “Drones are in the sort of sphere where manned aviation was in the ’50s,” Holland said. “We’ve got these fantabulous fandangled flying machines, but we haven’t quite worked on the processes we need to expand them into the wider public.”

Regarding the regulations that do exist, Holland called the safety rules for drone operation simplistic. “It’s based on: Manned aviation stays above 400 ft, people flying drones stay below 400 ft. Stay out of each other’s ways, keep an eye on everything, and everything will be good,” he said. “But, that’s limiting what we can do with drones.”

Holland suggested that industry has a large role to play in settling the drone regulation frontier. “We’ve got to drive regulation,” he said. “Look, we’re big players in the market. Let’s push the authorities. Let’s say what they need to do to give us the tools and the authority to really put drones into the mainstream.”

This regulatory guidance from industry, he added, must be a team effort. “It’s all about collaboration,” he said, “not competition. There is so much work to do on this, not one company can do it by themselves. We’ve really got to club together here if we want to really embrace the potential of drone use across industry and work together.”

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